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Among the most effective tools victims have in the fight against crime is the victim impact statement, which is used at the sentencing of defendants and, in many states, at parole hearings. All 50 states allow some form of victim impact information at sentencing. Most states allow oral or written statements, or both, from the victim at the sentencing hearing and require victim impact information to be included in the pre-sentence report and given to the judge before imposing sentence.
In most states, victim impact statements also are allowed at parole hearings; in other states a copy of the original statement is attached to the offender's file to be reviewed by the parole board. Some states allow these statements to be updated by the victims to include any additional impact the original crime has had on their lives.
Part of the Justice Process
In a few states, victim impact statements are allowed a bail hearings, pretrial release hearings, and plea bargain hearings. For most crime victims, these statements provide an opportunity to focus the court's attention on the human cost of the crime and allow the victims to become part of the criminal justice process. More than 80 percent of crime victims who have made such statements consider them to be a very important part of the process.
In some states, the law allowing victim impact statements requires the judge or parole board to consider the statements in making decisions, giving them more impact on the judicial process and outcome.
Elements of a Statement
Typically, a victim impact statement will contain the following:
- The physical, financial, psychological, and emotional impact of the crime.
- The harm done to family relationships by the crime, such as the loss of a parent or caregiver.
- Medical treatment or psychological services required by the victim because of the crime.
- The need for restitution.
- The victim's opinion of an appropriate sentence for the offender.
How to Write a Statement
Most states have victim impact statement forms for victims to complete. If the state does not have a form, focusing on the above questions is helpful. Also, all states have victim assistance programs, which anyone with questions about completing the statement can contact for help or clarification.
Completing Your Statement
Many people will read your statement, including the judge, attorneys, probation and parole officers, and prison treatment personnel. Here are some considerations:
- The answers should be written neatly or typed.
- Writing the answers first on a separate piece of paper will allow for errors to be fixed before transposing the information to the final form. Ask for additional forms if you make a mistake or decide to reword your answers.
- It is not mandatory that the answers fit into the space provided. Include additional sheets if necessary.
- Try to keep the answers concise, but write descriptively. You want to express the depth of how you feel-fear, trauma, and severe loss-and using descriptive words will help people identify with your experience.
Filling Out the Form
Here's what to put on the form:
- How you felt while the crime was taking place and the emotional impact this crime has had on your life.
- The physical, psychological, and financial impact of the crime.
- Examples of how the crime has changed your life.
- Documented and itemized financial losses, major and minor, as a result of the crime: loss of work; moving expenses; cost of gas for trips to doctors' offices as a result of injuries during the crime; and future expenses.
What to Avoid
Here's what you should not put on the form:
- Do not include information that identifies your physical address, phone number, place of employment, or email address. The defendant will have access to your letter or the statement you read in court and could use the information to contact you in the future.
- Do not introduce new evidence not covered at the trial or repeat evidence already presented.
- Do not use derogatory or obscene language. To do so will diminish the impact of your statement.
- Do not describe any harm that you hope the offender will experience in prison.
Reading the Statement in Court
If you do not feel that you can read your statement in court or you become too emotional to finish it, ask for an alternate or family representative to read it for you. If you want to show a picture or some other object while giving your statement, ask the court's permission first.
Write out your statement before speaking to the judge. Reading a statement can become very emotional, and it is easy to lose track of what you are saying. Having a written copy will help you cover all the points that you want to convey.
Focus on speaking only to the judge. If you want to speak directly to the defendant, ask the judge's permission to do so first. Directing your comments to the accused is not necessary. Anything you want to convey can be done by speaking directly to the judge.
Do not let the defendant manipulate you into losing control. Many times criminals will purposely try to anger the victim during the statement so that they do not finish. They may snicker, laugh, make sarcastic faces, yawn loudly, or even make obscene gestures. Some criminals will even shout out derogatory comments about the victim. By staying focused on the judge, you can help keep the criminal from sabotaging your statement.
Do not express anger about the trial, the attorneys, the court, or the offender. This is your time to express the pain you have experienced and influence the sentence the defendant will receive. Anger, explosive outbursts, obscene language, or references to what kind of harm you hope the defendant will face in prison will diminish the impact of your statement.
Laws regarding victim impact statements vary from state to state. To find out the law in your state, contact the local prosecutor's office, the state attorney general's office, or a local law library.